OAKLAND -- Heading into a weekend home series against the Rangers for what will be their first divisional matchup of the season, the A’s have opened up play at the Coliseum with plenty to feel good about.
Nick Allen’s first big league hit was one of many A’s highlights in Thursday’s 6-4 win over the Orioles to secure a four-game series victory. The 23-year-old infielder sparked an important two-run rally for Oakland in the seventh by smacking a one-out double to right, and later earned some style points with an impressive head-first slide into home plate to score from second on Sheldon Neuse’s RBI single.
Allen, the A’s No. 4 prospect, is one of 16 rookies to appear in a game for the A’s this year, which is good for the highest total in Major League Baseball. All of those rookies have helped contribute to a surprisingly hot start for Oakland, which has now won eight of its last 12 games to improve its record to 8-6 on the year.
“This team expects a lot,” Allen said. “We’re not here to just play baseball games, we’re here to win baseball games. Everyone has that mindset. We’re all hungry. Right now, I like where it’s going.”
Having taken three of four games from Baltimore, here are a few takeaways from the series as the A’s prepare to welcome the Rangers into town:
Sheldon Neuse has arrived
The A’s always knew Neuse could hit at the Minor League level when he ranked as one of their top prospects from 2018-20. The problem back then was he was blocked at the Major League level by stars like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, leading to his eventual trade to the Dodgers in 2021. Landing back with the organization this spring when he was claimed off waivers after he was designated for assignment by Los Angeles, Neuse finally has a shot at regular playing time in the big leagues, and he’s taking full advantage.
Neuse raked for the entirety of this four-game series against Baltimore, finishing 8-for-15 with a double and three RBIs. Through Oakland’s first 14 games, the 27-year-old infielder is now batting .368 with a .903 OPS, serving as a key cog near the top of the A’s lineup.
“Sheldon’s approach has been spot-on,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “He’s worked really hard since he was here last time as an A. I spent a lot of time with Sheldon as a younger player. Now, a few years later, I think Sheldon is focused. How he’s prepared himself and taken care of his body, he’s really matured over the last two years.”
An added plus from Neuse has been his versatility playing around the infield. However, with Kevin Smith currently sidelined due to a leg injury and his own emergence as a clutch hitter, Neuse has likely earned the everyday job at third base for the time being.
Pitching is on point
Whether it be the starters or relievers, Oakland’s entire pitching staff continues to shine early on. Blackburn is a big part of that equation. In three starts this season, he’s gone at least five innings and allowed no more than two runs in each, quickly establishing his presence in the middle of the A’s rotation with a 1.80 ERA that ranks among the top 10 pitchers in the American League.
Oakland’s bullpen entered Thursday without allowing an earned run over its previous 18 innings pitched. Things were a bit more shaky in the series finale against the Orioles as five relievers combined to allow three runs over the last five innings. But when it came down to crunch time, Dany Jiménez entered the ninth with a two-run lead and quickly notched his second save, displaying impressive stuff with two strikeouts in a perfect inning, filling the closer role quite nicely while Lou Trivino remains on the COVID-19 injured list.
Murphy found his groove
There are big expectations for Murphy this year as he moves into the middle of the lineup and tries to fill the void left from departed stars like Chapman and Olson. After a slow start early on, the catcher now appears to be driving every ball he hits with a ton of force.
Finishing 3-for-4 with a homer and a double on Thursday, Murphy is now 12-for-33 (.364) over his last nine games. His two-run blast in the fifth was tagged particularly well, registering 107.8 mph off the bat and traveling well past the wall in left field an estimated 411 feet, per StatCast.
Having won his first career Gold Glove Award last year, the defensive aspect of Murphy is already known. Entering 2022 viewed as an important piece of a reconstructed offense, he now looks to be stepping up as that force as well.
“The success he had in Spring Training has built his confidence,” Kotsay said of Murphy. “The last thing was his bat. We’re gonna continue to see growth. It’s good to see the trend is on the way up.”